Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics…They are, I believe, the voice of the people." –Jack Santino

Archive for the tag “urban shrines”

Veterans Day #1: Lake Elsinore Veterans memorial proposed for Diamond Stadium

I will be sharing a series of articles from the Inland Empire-based newspaper The Press-Enterprise regarding a proposed Veterans memorial in Lake Elsinore, California and then writing a post about it in the context of spontaneous shrines.  Here is the first article from PE on October 24th:

LAKE ELSINORE: Veterans memorial proposed for Diamond Stadium

The Lake Elsinore City Council will vote on the project at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The cost is put at $46,172



Published: 22 October 2012 04:16 PM

A black granite memorial to military veterans has been proposed for the main entrance to the Lake Elsinore Storm’s Diamond Stadium.

The City Council on Tuesday, Oct. 23, will consider approving the memorial’s final design and $50,000 price tag. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Lake Elsinore Cultural Arts Center, 183 N. Main St.

The six-foot-tall memorial will feature a set of polished black granite pedestals set on a raised concrete circle in front of the stadium entrance. Five small pedestals will be engraved with the emblems of each branch of the armed forces, surrounding a taller, central monument with text over an American Flag.

The base of the monument, under the silhouette of a solider kneeing in front of a cross, will read: “Freedom is Never Free.”

The design was chosen by a committee of Mayor Brian Tisdale, Lake Elsinore Historical Society President Joyce Hohenadl and representatives from local veterans groups, according to a city report.

Hohenadl said the group wanted a prominent location, so they decided to put the memorial right where baseball fans walk in to buy their tickets for Storm games.

“We thought that would be the most visible place for it,” Hohenadl said.

The memorial will be built by Sun City Granite, a Perris company known for its work with the military. The engraving company produces headstones for all fallen troops buried at Riverside National Cemetery.

It also built the National Distinguished Flying Cross Memorial at March Air Force Base and the new veterans memorial in Canyon Lake, said owner Teresa Herbers.

The company, which designed the Lake Elsinore memorial, has agreed to build it for $46,172. The city has $50,000 set aside for the project in its 2012-13 budget.

Follow John F. Hill on Twitter: @johnfhill2

Washed away by the rain – street chalking and ephemeral memorials, Part 1

A colleague of mine from Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program, Gillian Graham, sent me the following photos earlier this year:


–and a close-up of the chalking–



She also sent this explanation:

“So this popped up on the corner of 173rd/Haven Ave in NYC last week. I saw it in progress; I saw a woman find out for the first time that this woman had died through this shrine (she grew up with her), and then the next day it was washed out by a rainstorm.”

This New York City shrine is the perfect example of an ephemeral memorial.  I sometimes use the terms makeshift memorial/ephemeral memorial/spontaneous shrine/roadside memorial interchangeably, but in this case, I believe ephemeral memorial is the most appropriate due to the absolute ephemerality of the shrine.  Chalk, by nature, does not last on pavement for very long.  I grew up in the hot and dry suburbs, so as a child, a chalked hopscotch pattern could last for quite a long time (maybe two weeks).  In a place like New York City where there is extreme foot traffic and frequent heavy thunderstorms, anything that is chalked will probably not last more than about one or two days– if even that long.

A shrine like this makes me think of burning offerings for the dead.  You burn them and send them off away from the living to the dead.  A shrine that is made with the understanding that it will soon be gone is delicate yet powerful.  It has intense meaning for the fleeting moments that it exists and then it is washed away.  Like the person to whom it is dedicated, the shrine becomes a memory.

Tomorrow I’ll post about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire memorial project CHALK…stay tuned…

“When Newspapers Die, Where Do We Bring the Flowers?”

Hello dear shriners!

I’m very sorry for the long absence…April was a truly crazed month.  The long and short of it is I ended up leaving a job to pursue freelance journalism full-time, I’m in the process of getting ready to move, I’ll be officially graduating next week from my graduate program [for which this was my thesis, though it’s become much more], and I’ve been putting a lot of time into my part-time responsibilities– namely as an interviewer and host for a public radio station, program assistant and blogger for an education abroad trip that I’m totally excited about [it’s on Religion, Secularism, & Civil Societies!], and social media coordinator for a public radio news service.  Plus, New York City’s been a happening place to be what with all of the Occupy Wall Street action!

But, I’m excited to be back in the world of spontaneous shrines.  I’ve been collecting lots of interesting material to cover in the coming weeks and I’m looking forward to having the time to blog on a regular basis again.  I figured I’d start off with a more light-hearted post:

It starts with an empty newspaper/flyer box [like those found on many street corners] in Toronto and a person with a sense of urban art aesthetic who had a creative idea for a DIY [do-it-yourself] project.  This person took some plywood and constructed a flower planter inside the open flyer box.  Then, this DIYer posted the idea on a DIY website along with this picture:

I happened upon this photo of the newspaper box planter one day while searching for “makeshift memorials” online.  It was accompanied by an alternative press blog post entitled: “When Newspapers Die, Where Do We Bring the Flowers?”

I find it interesting that although the person who initially created the flyer box planter seemed to be only re-purposing and re-beautifying public space, the person who wrote the blog post transformed the flyer box planter from DIY project into makeshift memorial–and what a makeshift memorial it is!  Not only does it have the typical flower offerings, the flower offerings are planted in an aesthetically pleasing configuration.  It is a lovely example of public art and folk art.  The space calls attention to the newspaper stand, and it’s immediately apparent that the space has been altered.  Those print newspaper lovers among us (I’m definitely one) feel a pang of sadness at the loss of a newspaper, but the flowers help me cope with this feeling of loss.  They are beautiful and give me the physical space to deal with the change from what has been to what is now.  It also invites us to participate in this re-claiming of space–we can all make flyer box planters with simple plywood, dirt, and seeds 🙂

This is why I find spontaneous shrines and makeshift memorials such a fascinating topic.  There are so many ways in which public memorialization can be seen in everyday life–and not all of those ways are associated with such terrible topics as death.  People have a need to remember that which has been and memorials, no matter how small or playful, help us reflect upon and move with these changes that comes with time.

With that, I would like to thank you for reading and stay tuned for more posts in the near future!

Skittles, iced tea, and 1,000,000 hoodies for Trayvon Martin

On March 21, 2012,  I went  to Union Square in New York City where thousands of protesters had gathered for the Million Hoodie March in honor of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot and killed by a Neighborhood Watch member in Sanford, Florida on February 26.

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The majority of protesters were wearing “hoodies” or sweatshirts with hoods which they had pulled up over their heads:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Many of the protesters were carrying bags of Skittles:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

…while others carried bottles of Arizona iced tea:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

It was reported that Martin was wearing a hoodie and walking home from a convenience store where he had bought Skittles and iced tea when he was shot.

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

This particular incident has sparked outrage across the country due to the possible racial profiling involved in the lack of action taken by local police to prosecute Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman.  It does not surprise me that such a large protest would take place on the streets of New York.  This city is often at the forefront of social movements and with a substantial #Occupy contingent supporting the march, the large turnout was to be expected.

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

However, as someone fascinated by spontaneous memorialization practices, I was drawn to this march in particular because of how it was dressed.

If I were at a spontaneous shrine for Trayvon Martin, I would expect to find the usual teddy bears, flowers, and candles alongside certain objects specifically for Martin and his particular death.  There might be sweatshirts but I am almost certain there would be Skittles and iced tea.  Like the shrine for Amy Winehouse where there were bottles of alcohol and cigarettes, the shrine for Martin would have objects people associate with him.

As this was a memorial march [not just a political one], I believe the protesters’ decision to wear and carry these Martin-specific items makes this a mobile shrine of sorts.  Like an internet memorial that can be accessed by anyone–even someone far away from a death site–a memorial march/protest creates a memorial space [and place to grieve] that is accessible to these memorializers.  It serves the same purpose as any other spontaneous shrine; it calls attention to the circumstances that led to this person’s death and force onlookers to bear witness to the consequences.

As memento mori, these hooded people walking the streets of New York at night ask us all to consider the question:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

To see more of my photos from the Million Hoodie March, click here,  here or here.  To sign the petition written by Martin’s family calling for the prosecution of his shooter, George Zimmerman, click here.

The ghost bike for Liz Byrne

For the next few days, I’ll be posting photographs from the 7th Annual Ghost Bikes Memorial Walk and Ride.  I participated in the walk, so the photos will be primarily of that portion of the event.  This first set is of the ghost bike for Liz Byrne.  It is located on the corner of McGuinness Boulevard and Kent Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn:

Liz Byrne, age 44, was killed while bicycling on the busy street on Friday, September 23, 2005.  Her sister, Annie Byrne, requested that a ghost bike be installed in her honor.  You can read more about this particular memorial on the ghost bikes website.

Here are pictures of Liz Byrne’s ghost bike taken on Sunday, March 18, 2012:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Memorials moving to cyberspace as ground space runs out

A good friend of mine recently passed along this article to me.  It’s not exactly spontaneous shrines, but I find the discussion of the movement of memorials due to space constraints quite interesting.

The Challenges of Burying the Dead in Urban Asia


The Challenges of Burying the Dead in Urban Asia


In highly dense cities it’s often hard enough to find room for the living, let alone the dead. The problem is compounded in cultures that place great ritual meaning on burial sites. Given the realities of space constraints in many Asian cities, governments have been encouraging residents to forego traditional land burials for cremation. Even that hasn’t always been enough; in some places, the columbaria, where people can store their family urns, have reached capacity as well.

What began as a physical problem has given rise to novel spiritual rituals in many Asian cities. In the February issue of Urban Studies, Lily Kong, a geographer at the National University of Singapore, describes how commemorative practices in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China have changed in response to shrinking amounts of physical space for the dead. These shifts — from earthly graves to cremation, and now to scattered ashes and even online memorials — mark a graduation from “spatial competition to spatial compression and then to spatial transcendence,” Kong writes:

What is evident from existing studies is that death practices and deathscapes have evolved over time in a number of Asian cities. … As a consequence, sacred space and sacred time have been reconceptualised and rituals have been (re)invented to suit conditions of modernity while addressing abiding belief systems.

Kong points to three main examples in support of her point. The first is the (slowly) rising act of burial by sea in Hong Kong. A few years back officials recognized that by 2012 half of people who died in the city wouldn’t be able to find a spot in a columbarium, so the government began to promote the scattering of cremated ashes at sea. The process is non-pollutive and restricted to certain areas, and it’s also far cheaper than keeping an urn, which can cost at least $500 in U.S. currency.

However city residents have been reluctant to embrace the practice for several religious reasons. One is the belief, rooted in Chinese ritual, that the body should return to its natural place in the earth. Without a burial, therefore, people grow fearful of “giving rise to a ‘hungry ghost’ rather than a venerated ancestor,” Kong writes. Many also see scattering ashes at sea as tantamount to feeding fish — and thus disrespectful to the dead.

By comparison, the practice of woodland burials in cities in Taiwan have became far more popular. Taipei City has a density of nearly 10,000 people per square kilometer, and the packed city has a seven-year limit for earthen burial, after which the body must be exhumed and cremated. Still there’s a shortage of cemetery plots, Kong writes. Of its two major columbaria, one reached capacity in 2004 while the other was expected to do so last year.

In response the government has pushed hard for woodland or parkland burials. In the former, family members place ashes in biodegradable urns near a tree; in the latter, they scatter ashes over flower gardens. Both methods require just 10 percent of the space needed by a traditional grave site. Buddhists have accepted the practices as environmentally friendly, and the method offers some benefits that sea burial does not, such as the ability to mark sites with a rock and visit it later. With a few exceptions, the people of Taiwan have embraced the alternative; the first woodland plot, which opened in October of 2003, was full by September of 2004.

Kong ends her survey with a look at online memorialization in cities of mainland China. By 1985 density pressures had made cremation compulsory by law, and alternatives like woodland and sea burials have been introduced over the years. In addition the country has introduced online mourning sites, through which relatives of the deceased can set up a page dedicated to a loved one’s memory. Kong describes:

With the websites dedicated to mourning and memorialisation, users can use their computer mouse to drag fresh flowers, matches, incense, candles and tea and wine cups to simulate the real act of offering flowers, lighting incense and candles, and offering tea and wine. The sites also feature photos of the deceased, prayers offered by their mourners and stories and reminiscences about past lives, which can be captured in multimedia format. For the specific site they are engaged with, they may also choose their own backgrounds and tombstone images.

By 2007 there were more than 30 commercial memorial websites in China, Kong reports. One of these, Netor, reported roughly 6 million messages posted to the site in its first six years of existence, though others have reported far less impressive traffic levels. That’s because many Chinese object to the practice on several grounds. Some don’t view the Internet as a respectful forum for remembering the deceased, while others have a desire to continue the ceremony of Qing Ming — an annual festival to celebrate the departed by visiting a gravesite.

Kong concludes that the most successful alternative burial methods in Asia are those that offer a mechanism for “spatial transcendence” while providing for both a dignified afterlife and a way for living relatives to honor the dead:

The relative reception of these new practices is thus dependent on the ability to address the need for a unique place where memorial practices may be carried out. It is also premised on the ability to maintain relative levels of privacy (hence exclusivity) and public character according to the desires of the descendants. Further, it is necessary that there remains some thread of continuity with old rituals.

Top image: A worker arranges altar tablets at a luxury columbarium in Singapore (Reuters)

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of The King’s Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America. He lives in New York

Return, Remember: Ephemeral Memorials in the Legacy of September 11th

Walking around DUMBO, Brooklyn during the week of September 11th this year, I saw a number of what looked like spontaneous shrines and public art tables set up between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge.  I talked to the people running the booths and found out that the Brooklyn Arts Council [BAC] had come up with the idea to have an exhibition of ephemeral memorials co-created by members of the Council and the public, who were invited to participate in an activity at each of the booths.  I walked from one activity to the next and did a wide variety of things including painting a small canvas the color of the sky that morning, creating a bundle of memory herbs, placing a marble on a clay-covered table to represent 1 day since September 11th [there were enough marbles for every day in 10 years], and writing a note for a community spontaneous shrine.

During the week prior to the 10 year anniversary, BAC invited anyone to make an “ephemeral memorial” [often a spontaneous shrine] in memory of September 11th.  One could make it at home, at a public place, at the office, or anywhere else they chose.  Photographs of these homemade ephemeral memorials are now on the BAC website.  You can see the online exhibition here.

I find it very interesting that the Arts Council chose shrines and memorials as the medium for their anniversary commemoration.  Personal yet public, for the living and the dead…

Sunrise and sunset: the ghost bike for William Daniel Rodriguez

A little while ago, I was walking with some friends from Greenpoint to the Brooklyn Bridge.  About halfway through the walk we neared the Williamsburg Bridge.  The East River was to our right and a strong wind was blowing down Kent Avenue.  Chained to a signpost near a Jewish community center was a small, spray-painted white bike with flat tires.

I recognized it as a ghost bike, or a memorial bicycle placed at the site where a cyclist was killed, usually by another vehicle.  The first time I saw a ghost bike was in Amsterdam.  It was surrounded by flowers and stood out bright against the sea of bikes that continuously travel through the city.  This particular bike is quite small–it looks like it is meant for a child.

The writing on the post behind the bike reads:








You will always

Be in our



Big Will

The writing on the bike itself reads:





10:39 pm

Your welcome to take a balloon and let it go in his name.

The writing is done in black permanent marker.  The bike is adorned with blue  and white ribbons.  Above the bike, attached to the post is a set of large fake flower hearts, one white and one red.  In front of the tires are a set of four votive candles, one of which has a pair of cigarette lighters in it.  In front of the bike, there is an old, water-stained copy of the children’s book When Sheep Sleep, which has “for Danny” written on the cover.

From the writing, it appears that William Daniel Rodriguez, perhaps known as “Danny” died when he was 18 years old.  I’m guessing he may have been a smoker because of the cigarette lighters, but it is equally possible that the lighters have been left there for people to use for the votive candles.  Although I believe he was 18 when he died, the kid’s book and kid’s bike lead me to believe that his parents and other family members are the ones who set up the memorial.  He is remembered in his role as a child in a family, rather than as a friend or lover.

After returning home, I went onto the Ghost Bikes website to see if I could find out any additional information about this particular bike.  There is a page for William Rodriguez, but the information does not closely match the bike I saw.  The location is correct, but the date of death does not seem to be correct.  The page says: “A ghost bike appeared on Kent Avenue on October 8, 2009 to remember William Rodriguez, killed by the drunk driver of a truck in 2002.”  While it may be true that the bike appeared in 2009, the bike itself refers to William’s “sunset” as happening in 2007, not 2002.  The page also lists his age at death as 19 years old, whereas if the bike is correct, he would have died about a week before his 19th birthday.

This leaves me wondering if the information for the other bikes in New York City is correct. Of course, I can’t be sure whether the bike or the page is correct, but I’m inclined to trust the shrine itself.  Therefore, I’ve decided to do a bit of traveling.  I am going to visit each of the 80 ghost bikes listed for NYC (and any I pass along the way) and record the information I find on and around the bikes.  I’ll photograph the bikes as well.  I’m not sure what I’ll do once I’ve visited them all, but I feel like I should take a look at these memorials myself to see what I can learn about each individual.

The list can be found here.  To see a map of the bikes, look here.

Now– to the streets of New York I go in search of the white bikes…

A shrine for “A”

While walking around Manhattan’s Upper West Side this evening, I happened to pass a recently-erected shrine.  It’s located on the sidewalk on the south side of the street next to a brick and concrete apartment building.  The shrine is quite small and not particularly elaborate.  It comprises a cardboard box, some candles, a vase with flowers, and two handwritten signs that begin with “RIP  A”.

Although I have been concentrating on roadside shrines, and this is technically beside a road, this shrine made me think about a few things I hadn’t really considered before.  I realized, as I looked at this memorial, that I couldn’t tell if it marks the place where “A” died, or if it is located there because that is the apartment building in which “A” had lived.  I suppose it could also be both.  When shrines are erected next to highways, especially on dangerous stretches of road, they are usually placed as near as possible to the precise death site of the person they are for.  However, I’m finding that in cities it is often much more difficult to tell at first glance why a memorial is in a particular place.  Without speaking to the person who erected this shrine to “A,” I can’t know the significance of its location.

I’m left wondering why I’m wondering at all about the importance of that spot on the sidewalk.  There is something discombobulating about recognizing a space as sacred but not understanding immediately why the space is sacred.  How does knowing the story of that sidewalk [or highway] impact the person passing by?  Why is knowing the story important?  Why is it unsettling to not know what happened there?

One final thought for tonight about this shrine.  I notice that the date of death is November 11, 2010.  This shrine was just erected this week (it has never been there when I’ve passed by before).  I’ve seen instances of people bringing new offerings to a shrine on the anniversary of a person’s death, but I’m curious about the motivation to build a new shrine to commemorate the anniversary.  Does that in any way alter the shrine’s function?  Purpose?  Spontaneity?  Any thoughts?

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